Whether helping communities better prepare for the hazards posed by earthquakes or providing crucial data aimed at combatting the ravages of COVID-19 in U.S. prisons and jails, faculty across the UCLA campus are regularly engaged in research that benefits society and leads to communities that are safer, more informed and more socially just.

On June 2, three of these faculty members will be honored with UCLA Public Impact Research Awards at the chancellor’s residence for their sustained efforts to translate their research into positive public action. The awards, presented annually by the UCLA Office of Research and Creative Activities, will be accompanied by $15,000 for each of the two research projects being recognized.

This year’s honorees are:

Sharon Dolovich
Professor of law

Director of UCLA Law’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project

Aaron Littman
Assistant professor of law

Deputy and acting director of UCLA Law’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project

When the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020, a year after the Department of Justice stopped keeping accurate records on deaths in custody, Dolovich and Littman launched the COVID Behind Bars Data Project, an effort to track the impact of COVID-19 in prisons, jails and other U.S. carceral facilities. What began as an open-data spreadsheet soon grew to involve several full-time staffers and well over a hundred volunteers who, through public records requests and web scraping, assembled the most important repository of COVID-19–related prison data in the nation.

Major media outlets frequently drew on the project’s data in their reporting, prisoner advocates used its findings in filing emergency-release motions and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came to rely on the project to monitor conditions in prisons during the pandemic. Project organizers were twice invited to contribute to U.S. Senate investigations into deaths in custody. In addition, articles published by the COVID Behind Bars Project in major scientific journals revealed that prisoners died from COVID-19 at much higher rates than the general public and uncovered stark racial disparities in deaths among Texas prisoners.

“In a moment of crisis, when millions of vulnerable people living behind bars were facing an outsized risk of COVID infection and death, scores of UCLA students, staff and faculty mobilized to try to help mitigate the threat,” said Dolovich, who received a UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award in 2021. “This Public Impact Research Award honors the public service commitment of the many members of the UCLA community who together made our work possible.”

In the continuing absence of accurate federal data on carceral deaths in the U.S., the project — now called Behind Bars Data Project — has become the country’s most comprehensive public resource tracking prison deaths from all causes nationwide.

“Prison health is public health,” said Littman, the recipient of a 2022 Junior Scholar Award from the Criminal Justice Section of the Association of American Law Schools. “Documenting the toll incarceration takes is a first step towards stemming it.”

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Yousef Bozorgnia
Professor of civil and environmental engineering

Bozorgnia is widely recognized for his extensive contributions to seismic engineering and the quantification of earthquake hazards. He has been the principal investigator on a number of large collaborative efforts to quantify ground movements during earthquakes, and as director of the Natural Hazards Risk and Resiliency Research Center has boosted the resilience of communities by helping to improve the ability of their infrastructure to withstand natural disasters.

Findings from research studies by Bozorgnia and his colleagues used worldwide in seismic analysis and for the resilient design of a wide spectrum of structures, from single-family homes and large buildings to bridges, power plants and dams. His collaborative community-based research projects have impacted earthquake design in every earthquake-prone region of the U.S., and the models he and his colleagues have developed to estimate ground shaking have been adopted by the U.S. Geological Survey to generate seismic hazard maps for the entire country.

A fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers since 1988, Bozorgnia was awarded the prestigious Bruce Bolt Medal — given annually by the Consortium of Strong Motion Observation Systems, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and the Seismological Society of America — in 2019 for his contributions to the field of earthquake engineering.

“I love to solve real-world problems. Working collaboratively with colleagues inside and outside academia is an important element of carrying out research that affects communities,” he said. “I am so thankful for this award. It gives me more energy to try to solve impactful earthquake engineering problems.”